How many incumbents lost?

Joe Biden just made a brief speech about the election. He said he expects to win enough states to win the electoral college and claim victory. He did not claim the election is over, so that’s good. He also mentioned that he expects his ticket to have won the greatest number of popular votes in history, which, while true, is somewhat trite; vote totals always increase, as the population increases.

And there was one throw-away line which caught my ear: he said “Only three presidential campaigns in the past have defeated an incumbent president. We expect to be the fourth.” I said, “No way, Joe. Why did you say that?”

1992: Bill Clinton defeated George W. Bush, with H. Ross Perot also in the mix.

1980: Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Blame the Iran hostage crisis.

1976: Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. After Watergate, and the pardon of Richard Nixon, the biggest surprise was how close Ford came to winning.

1932: Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover. The Great Depression. Need we say more?

1912: Woodrow Wilson defeated William Taft. Actually, Wilson beat Theodore Roosevelt, who came back from Africa, didn’t like what his successor Taft was doing, and got in the race himself. Taft is the only incumbent president to come in third in his bid for re-election.

1892: Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin Harrison, to become the only former president to win the election.

1888: Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was the only Democrat to win the White House between the Civil War and the election of Woodrow Wilson.

1840: William Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren. After the mad scramble of 1836, where four Whig candidates couldn’t win, the party unified and Harrison won.

1828: Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams. Perhaps the first negative presidential campaign, marked by mud-slinging, two former party-mates faced off as Jackson became the first Democrat.

1800: Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, and we discovered why presidential and vice presidential candidates need to run as a ticket.

[Editing several hours later to add the following:]

After posting that, I was talking with my father later in the day, and he said he’d heard one of the pundits say that only three times in the last hundred years had an incumbent president been defeated. I said that was wrong, and gave him the list (above). Then I realized that pundit and Joe Biden probably had the same (incorrect) source.

But thinking about it further, I realized it’s not quite so rare an occurrence as at first it appears to be. Of those four times in the last hundred years, how many times was there even a chance to defeat an incumbent?

In 1920, Woodrow Wilson retired after two terms, so no incumbent was on the ballot.
In 1924, Calvin Coolidge ran for his own term as president after succeeding to the office upon Warren Harding’s death. He won.
In 1928, Calvin Coolidge retired. No incumbent.
In 1932, incumbent Herbert Hoover ran and lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In 1936, incumbent FDR ran and won.
In 1940, incumbent FDR ran and won.
In 1944, incumbent FDR ran and won. Then he died in 1945, and Harry Truman succeeded.
In 1948, Truman ran for his own full term and won.
In 1952, Truman retired. No incumbent.
In 1956, incumbent Dwight Eisenhower ran and won.
In 1960, Eisenhower retired.
In 1964, LBJ (who’d succeeded to the presidency upon JFK’s assassination in 1963), ran for and won his own term.
In 1968, LBJ retired. No incumbent.
In 1972, incumbent Richard Nixon ran and won.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford, who’d succeeded to the office upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter.
In 1984, incumbent Reagan ran and won.
In 1988, Reagan retired.
In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush.
In 1996, incumbent Clinton ran and won.
In 2000, Clinton retired.
In 2004, incumbent George W. Bush ran and won.
In 2008, Bush retired.
In 2012, incumbent Barack Obama ran and won.
In 2016, Obama retired.

So in the last hundred years, incumbent presidents running for re-election are 12 and 4. Yes, incumbency is worth a chunk of votes, but defeating an incumbent is not so rare an event as one might think.

And, for the sake of completeness: in the years before 1920, incumbents ran for and won re-election ten times. Incumbents ran for and lost re-election six times. And there was no incumbent on the ballot sixteen times.

[Editing again at 3:00am on November 5:]

I just heard Douglas Brinkley on CNN quote that stat: “Since FDR, only three incumbents have lost.” So I guess he’s the source Biden used, and the source my father heard.

So, wow, that’s a shocker. <end sarcasm mode>

But since FDR, incumbents running for re-election have won eight times and lost three times. If Donald Trump loses, that means that, since FDR, incumbents running for re-election are only batting .667. Suddenly, it’s a bit less of a shock.

Tips gratefully accepted at

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